Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The End

I'm home!!! And no, that is not a sentimental euphemism for Bev's children's home. I am back home in MN, huddled up inside against sub-zero temperatures and 5-ft mounds of snow. My original plane ticket was for March, but I decided that I was ready to come home. With the emergence of a still unidentified infection on my stomach I decided that rather than drag out the last few weeks just for the sake of making it to my original return date, I wanted to leave on a good note and have some extra time at home.
I spent my last two weeks in Kenya back in the village of Rabondo (where I taught for my first two months) working on the Sanitary Pad project I mentioned in my last post. It was a small project, but it dealt with an important and overshadowed issue and could lead to something bigger. The part I helped with while I was in Rabondo was dispensing reusable sanitary pads which had been fund raised for by the Rabondo Community Project. There were not enough pads for all the girls in the school, so the principle helped us determine which girls needed them most and I met with those girls to explain how to use them. I realized during that meeting that this was the first time I had really focused on the girls in Kenya. I taught girls, but they were mixed in with boys and there were so many students that I didn't have a chance to really focus on individuals. And the children's home was of course all boys. So working with these girls was a new experience and it opened up my eyes to how disadvantaged women and girls are in Kenya. The first and third place on the primary school final exams went to girls. Girls are taking the lead in schools all over Kenya, and yet women are noticeably absent from government and official positions. The expectations of women in Kenya are unbelievable. They are expected to go to school, but then pressured by all the men around them to have sex at a very young age. They then have to raise children alone or submit to the housewife role of working the fields, washing, cooking, cleaning, raising children and serving every man around them. Women have no outlet in Kenya. There are few facilities, if any, for battered women, women who choose to leave their husbands, and widowed women. During my small meeting with the Rabondo girls I felt a timid but overwhelming desire from them to be heard, to be given even the smallest push toward a new life with options and possibilities. Safely back home in the land of freedom and opportunity I am realizing more than ever that the women are where I want to devote my energy in the future.
It's amazing how much my perspective has changed coming back home. Things on both sides feel so surreal and absurd. America feels excessively clean and contained almost to a comical degree. I remember laughing at the thought of trying to carry hand sanitizer as the filth of Kenyan streets swelled up around me, and wondering just how far the minuscule bottle of jell would take me in a world swimming with bacteria and fungus. When I do venture out onto the sterile cold streets of Minnesota, I am amazed by the silence. It feels strange walking past children and not having them chase me calling out Mzungu, and I have to consciously stop myself from shaking hands with everyone who passes in my direction. "How are you?" has taken a whole new meaning for me after hearing it 5000 times a day in Kenya, so I just smile and say fine, remembering the way that phrase seemed to fly at me from the bushes and hills as I used walked down the road.
More than anything though I have reached a clearer understanding of the way I was treated in Kenya. I spent my first few months in Kenya trying to convince everyone that they had an exaggerated image of the luxury in America. When parents would ask me to take their children home with me and every child I met said he or she wanted to get to America some day I would try to explain to them that America has problems too. But being back here I have to admit that life is just easier here. Yes there are struggles and poor people and crime, but there are so many more facilities and institutions set in place to counteract those issues. And so many day to day tasks that are overlooked here as routine even by the poor are half a days work and energy over there. The poor of Kenya don't take their clothes to the laundry mat.
I still maintain the belief that I articulated in earlier posts that their lifestyle holds many wholesome values that ours has lost sight of, but that said it is a gruelling life and I have a much better understanding of any bitterness I felt directed at me simply for being a privileged American.
I am not fully adjusted to my luxurious home life yet, but I have been home enough to start to evaluate and truly appreciate my experience abroad and it has only left me yearning for more. I want to keep travelling and see as many different parts of the world and different types of people as possible. I learned more on this trip than I have in any classroom and I want to keep learning and discovering for the rest of my life. I cannot recommend travelling enough and for anyone who wants advice or tips I would love to talk about it. Thanks so much to all of my loyal followers and for all of your support. Knowing I had people who cared about me truly got me through this trip.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


As all the proper facebook stalkers who are reading this know, I travelled to Uganda last week to visit the Jewish community.
Overall it was an amazing trip. Coincidentally I was there the same weekend as their first ever youth convention, so I got to meet Jewish teens from all over Uganda. Even more coincidentally, three Californians were there for the convention and two of them had been on seminar with me! Crazy things happen in Africa...
The 9 hour bus ride from Kenya to Uganda was the aspect of the trip I was most nervous for, and with good reason; it was an adventure to put it lightly. The bus was scheduled to leave at 11 PM which complicated things because the station was outside of town and getting there at night is a hassle. I ended up riding to the bus station on the back of a bicycle. It was just after dusk and the highway stretched into the blackness ahead as if it led of the edge of the earth. The huge trucks and vans sped past us in a dizzying whir of wind and headlights. All of my night travelling in Kenya has given me this strange dream-like sensation, one of the strangest feelings I have ever experienced. The whole world is so dark, which only makes the unnaturally bright lights of the roadside stores glow more luminously. Everything is silent and I begin to remember I am in a desert - land that was so recently a wilderness, and it is the blunt contrast of the florescent lights that puts me in such a trance.
I waited for a few hours at the bus station, only to find when the bus finally arrived at midnight that my seat had been taken. I asked the woman to move, but when she refused I could do little more than stare helplessly at her and block up the aisle. The conductor found me an open spot at the back where every bump and rut in the road is exaggerated to a painful extent. And bumps there were in plenty. The bus driver seemed to think the bus was big enough to just speed over the shattered road, but he was sorrowfully wrong, and my rump suffered the consequences.
Although I didn't get much sleep things were generally OK until about 4:30 AM. The bus stopped, but only about half of the passengers got off so I figured it was just a routine stop. Not knowing if or when the bus would stop again I decided to risk getting off to find a bathroom. I was immediately ambushed by vendors and bicyclists, everyone shouting and pointing me in different directions. I just repeated the work "toilet" as loudly as I could in a questioning tone until one man heard me and said, "Oh, come!" I followed hesitantly as it was dark and a strange man was leading me into a deserted alleyway, but I was also afraid the bus would leave so there was little time to dawdle. Travelling alone frequently puts you in positions where you have to trust complete strangers with everything you own, including your life. That is sometimes scary in a place where so many people are constantly trying to rip you off, but it is also a good opportunity to learn about people and to realize how you judge on appearance.
The trip to bathroom turned out fine, although I have peed under more sanitary conditions. When I reentered the bus though, more people had gone and worry began to nag my senses, because as any traveller knows, when in an unfamiliar place the smartest thing to do is follow the crowd. The problem was that the crowd had dispersed into the night, but as I sat trying to formulate a plan of action a man came on the bus and made a stern announcement in Swahili, of which I understood only the word "passport". The guy next to me of course spoke not one word of English, but the remaining passengers were getting up so I took my passport and followed them off the bus. It was still chaotic outside and hard to know whom to follow, but I recognized one guy from the bus and to my relief he spoke English so I tagged along with him up to a small building where we had our passports stamped. The bus then picked us up and drove 50 ft only to drop us off again at the end of a long road. I found my new English speaking friend who informed me that we had to get our passports stamped again at the other end of the long road.
Safely back on the bus I tried to get a little sleep as our bus wasn't scheduled to arrive until 9 AM and had left an hour late. My last surprise came at 6:30 AM when the bus stopped and my friend told me we were in Mbale (my stop). Momentarily I was gripped with fear that he was trying to trick me off the bus early, but what could I do? I got off the bus with him. It did turn out to be Mbale, and after a short scare in which my phone didn't work, I got through to the Rabbi of the Jewish community and he sent someone to pick me up.
It was a journey I will not forget anytime soon and the ride back to Kenya was an adventure to match the first, but the trek was worth the stay. There were people from Israel and the from US for the convention, and everyone thought I was there with the three USYers who came from California so I got to help with the planning and tag along to all the events! "Plans" have a whole different way of taking shape in Africa (and by that I mean they usually don't take shape at all) so the convention had a rather chaotic feel, but it was OK. Things came together and discussions and sing alongs cropped up where there was extra time. There was a dance and a soccer game and best of all a day long hike to Sipi falls, these magnificently beautiful waterfalls, which we got to climb down to and get completely soaked.
The Jewish community, the Abuyadayah, originated from a group of converts in the early 1900s and was discovered in the '80s. The Rabbi was then taken to California and ordained and later returned to convert his whole community under the conservative movement. It was hard to tell what in the community had been affected by all the outside attention they have recently received, but regardless it was cool. While in some ways they seemed to be less observant than my home community, in other ways they were more directly in touch with the laws and traditions of Judaism. They sang many of the psalms in L'uganda and when we ate cow and goat the animals were slaughtered, kosherly, by members of the community right on the compound. Some of the guys my age had formed a hip-hop group and many of their songs included Hebrew and part of Jewish prayers.
I really wanted to stay longer and see what the community is like under normal conditions, but I had to get back to Kenya. There will be a next time I hope. I am now back at the children's home in Kenya and trying to figure out how best to spend my remaining six weeks. I think I will go with a Kenyan friend to her home in Nairobi for a week, after which I will return to Rabondo for a bit. In Rabondo I will be working on a project supplying reusable cloth sanitary pads to girls in the village who are currently missing school each month because they cannot afford sanitary pads. After that I hope to return to the children's home in Nakuru and volunteer for the last few weeks at a nearby preschool.
It's hard to believe how soon I will be seeing you all!!! Please keep in touch though, six weeks is not SO short.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Little Reflection

I am fast approaching the two month mark of my return home and have now spent more time in Kenya than that which remains, so I have been thinking a lot about my experiences here and how they have affected me.
It struck me the other day that my journey in Kenya has followed a progression very similar to my time spent on the Apple Valley Swim Team. Both experiences have been the type that are challenging to the point that I often doubt my sanity in pursuing them. Each day is both physically and mentally gruelling, and often times when confronted with small day to day tasks I am overcome by the same panicky dread that used to wash over me as I would watch my swim coach write the next swim set on the board. Washing clothes by hand for example is something to which I have not and will not ever adjust. The cold unwelcoming water of a basin of filthy clothes is eerily similar to that of a swimming pool as I procrastinate the unavoidable pain of the awaiting task. Things that should be simple and easy always seem to have some complication or twist. Like swimming, chopping vegetables is not something that is in itself painful. But like swimming at race pace without rest for hours on end, chopping vegetables as the sun scorches your nose and hands and poo-covered flies crawl unabashedly up your arms and legs, becomes quite another story.
All of that sounds miserable, I know, so you are probably asking yourself why I stayed with it for so long. The answer to that question lies in the reason I stuck out an entire swim season and joined the team again the following year. For all the daily hardship I know that I will come out of the experience a stronger and healthier person. What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger, and I am learning so much about myself and about the world. And for every time I have become discouraged someone has been there to pull me back up and remind me what I am here for. The relationships I have formed here have proven well worth any struggle I have undergone. As with swim season I reached a sort of peace, I can't say exactly when, with the difficulty of the situation and learned to find humor and appreciation rather than frustration.
The street children in Nakuru town who cluster around me as I walk down the street used to overwhelm me with their clutching hands and strong stench of glue, but I now recognize and differentiate between them and can chat and joke with them as we walk. I have even reached an understanding with the aggressive street vendors. I spent a day selling cookies on the street with some of the boys from the home (much to the amusement of all the Kenyans) and I found myself becoming just as forward and annoying as all the other vendors, pushing costumers who clearly had no interest. I can now commiserate with them over the suckiness of their job, but more importantly I respect them for trying. The strong air of dependency that ravages Africa and produces beggars and thugs leaves me no choice but feel deep respect for even the most annoying salesperson.
The whole issue of dependency and expectancy towards the mzungu is still something I struggle with, but I am learning to take it less personally. On the matatu a snobby little girl poked my arm and asked as she chomped on bubble gum if I would buy her a cake. I just smiled and said, "why don't you buy me a cake; you're the one who just sucked down a lollipop." She stared at me in confused silence and I returned my attention to the wide horizon where sun rays pierced fiery clouds and a sunset of colossal structures, angelic pink and majestic purple, tumbled into the mountain tops. I will certainly miss the beauty of Kenya and of the African skies.
Appreciating Kenya's landscape came along with learning how to slow down in general. During my first few months I wanted so badly to be part of the community here, but at the same time as a volunteer I felt the need to be constantly doing something. It took me a long time to see the discrepancy between my two main ambitions. African culture is slow, there is just no way around that. My need to be always moving and accomplishing was getting in the way of my simply being with people. It took me a while to be able to just sit with people and do nothing for hours on end, but that's what it took to form real relationships with them.
There is one area however where Kenyan culture is not slow: the roads. All of the pent up energy that is not spent in daily life bursts forth on the roads like a wild animal loosed from a cage. Matatus (small buses) speed and maneuver through crowded junctures like there's no tomorrow (which there very well may not be for the overstuffed passengers). It's strange though that they rush because once they get where they're going they act as if they have all the time in the world. It's like a race with no final destination; everyone is just frantic to get somewhere. It makes me wonder about my conception of time and purpose in general. In America we are always in a hurry, always reaching and striving, planning and proceeding. We so rarely remember just to live in the moment and appreciate where we are while we are there.
On another matatu ride the driver suddenly slowed and looking out the window I saw that a motorbike had been hit by a car. The driver of the motorbike was lying on road, dead, a river of blood streaming from his head. It was there and then gone so suddenly. There was no build up, no dramatic soundtrack. It scared me that life could end so suddenly and so unceremoniously. It made me want to stop wasting my time trying to get somewhere and just be here because who knows if I will have time to get where I am going. What if I spend my life striving and die before I reap the benefits? How much would that suck?
Of course it is easier said than done to "live in the moment", but it is something I am learning about and working on. As Kenya's drought gives way to massive flooding, displacing tens of thousands of residents, I think the whole country is waking up a bit to the irony of life and appreciation. You never know what's coming in life, but that is especially true in Africa. Looking back over the adventure of the past for months, I get a tingle of excitement and anticipation wondering what the next two months could possibly hold in store. All the same I can't help looking ahead a bit to the end of that two months when I will be home and see you all again. Keep in touch!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Masai

Bev has gone back to the US, but before she left we had plans to travel around a bit and pick up artwork for her organization. Our first stop was in Narok which is the nearest town to many Masai tribes, and Bev happened to know a Massai man, named Kipila, who was willing to take us out into the bush and visit Masai homes. The Masai live on less than most Americans would think possible. The houses are constructed of mud and cow dung with a wood base made from a local tree and in total they are only about 10x15 ft. They are all identical, with only a fire place and small ledges built into the walls and covered with cow hide for beds. The Masai refer to cows as Life because from the cow they get milk, meat, blood, dung, and hide - and that's all you really need in life, right? But in all seriousness their lives did not seem to be any more lacking than the lives of most Americans. Lacking in different ways maybe, but not more. Kipila took me into the houses of strangers because in Masai culture any Masai is allowed to enter and even sleep over in the house of any other Masai. So we sat in the dark, stuffy hut and Kipila translated while I asked some Masai women about their lives.
As I felt the meeting drawing to a close I threw out a question about the Masai song and dance, hoping for a small glimpse into that part of their culture and let me tell you, I got what I asked for. The women laughed and said that it was circumcision season and that if I stayed on a few days I would be able to get the full view of their song and dance. How could I say no to that???
I said my farewells to Bev, packed my malaria pills and a change of clothes and headed back into the bush with Kipila, to his home, where his family welcomed me as one of them.
The first day I hung out with his daughters doing chores and learning how to bead Masai bracelets. That was fun and interesting, but it was not until the next morning that things got really amazing.
Kipilas daughter Rachel and I walked a few km Sat. morning to another Masai home where two boys (and by boys I mean they were 17 and 19) were to be circumcised. They circumcise girls as well, but there were not any girls in this ceremony. A group of women paraded out into the bush with the boys to kick off the ceremony, the men dispersed, and I stayed on with the rest of the women to prepare the feast. A few months ago I would have been enraged by the sexism of the all the work left to the women, the multiple wives, and the overbearing power of the Masai men. But the women love it! We had a blast peeling potatoes all day and they all claim to be best friends with their co-wives. I had more than one invitation from the women to become their co-wife... Rather than weak and submissive these were some of the strongest women I have ever met and although they have immense respect for their husbands they are by no means afraid to tell them off or refuse them. I am starting to doubt my conception of fairness and equality. Who is the western world to tell the Masai that their way of life is wrong or sexist? I felt far less pressure dressed in the Masai shukas and and living their lifestyle than I generally feel as an American female. The Masai seem to submit themselves to life and tradition while Americans try to conquer and control life. Which sounds more stressful?
At about four the boys returned and the ceremony began in earnest. The boys were escorted to the house where they were sat on cow hides and shaved and then sandals were cut for them from the cow hide. Then the drinking started. The excess of alcohol was unfathomable. In honor of each boy were the traditional 10 buckets of Masai brewed herbal alcohol, but that was nothing to the hard liquor that seemed to be stashed in every corner and under every Masai cloak (shukah). The women continued to cook, but by no means missed out on the partying. I was both shocked and amused when the woman next to me stood up and took a large swig out of the tumbler she had been sitting on, but I was completely blown away when a traditionally dressed old women coyly withdrew a small container from her shukah and proceeded to snort a brown powdery substance.
I firmly declined the snuff, but not so wisely agreed to try a small cup of the herbal alcohol and spent the remainder of the night in a nauseous, feverish delirium. The Masai were a little more hard-core and danced and sung for the entire night, but I felt so sick that I had to seek out one of the four English speakers out 150 people (a 12 year old girl) and ask her where I could sleep. She took me into one the houses where I climbed into bed amongst a large number of African children and wove in and out of feverish nightmares in cramped, sweaty misery. The children woke me at six saying "quick Nashipae (that was my Masai name), the boys are coming!" We rushed outside in time to see the boys being paraded out into the cow field where they were anointed with water, layed on cow hide and circumcised. Though awake and sober neither boy made a sound and I was told that if they had it would have shamed their whole family.
The atmosphere was somber and powerful and adding to its eeriness were the drunken (and God only knows what else) men passing out and having strange heaving fits. The boys were then carried back to their beds where they lay for the day in the company of their friends and parents. Everyone else kept drinking. I was still sick so I slept most of the day, but when I got up the celebration was still in full swing. A feast was served and then the elders continued singing and dancing and it was absolutely beautiful. They sang in their Masai tongue with pure, passionate voices and danced with a strange thrusting head movement. It was a dance that would have looked absurd if attempted by anyone other than the traditional elders in their beautiful wraps and beads.
They live an intense lifestyle, and I by the time I left I was ready for a shower and some time to recover from the bedbugs I got at the ceremony, but there was a definite ache in my heart when I had to say goodbye. The Masai have an amazing culture and I feel so lucky to have experienced it so personally.
I spent the next few days at a hostel in Nairobi just see the city and be really on my own for a bit which was very needed and very fun. I met so many amazing and interesting people and even brought an Israeli back with me to the children's home to volunteer! The past two weeks have been just the adventure I needed and I feel like I discovered a whole new side of Kenya and of travelling in general. The Masai and the many travellers at the hostel were all amazing and inspiring in their own ways and I feel energized and excited just to have met them and heard their stories. I am having fun, but still missing you all so much (especially around the holidays) so PLEEEEAAASE keep in touch!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The roads...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On the Road Again

Before I begin this post I need to retract something I said two posts ago. I mentioned that the Texans' container was being held ransom at a church, but as it turns out it was only being highly taxed at customs. My mistake... I'm sorry for any issues that caused.
I left Rabondo about a week ago and I have been back with Bev since then. It has been so great to see her and all her boys again! On Sat. (sorry God) Bev, a few of her boys and I piled into her big van and drove all day up to a place called Turkana, in Northern Kenya, to feed orphans. It was far and away my best experience yet in Kenya. I think the best way to describe the roads once we got out into rural Kenya is that they looked like they had been bombed. We didn't get out of second gear for much of the drive as we bumped and crashed along the devastation. The roof of the van lifted so we could all stand on our seats and hang out to better gape at the spectacular view surrounding us. First there was rain forest - luscious, chaotic jungle, which morphed into dry, arid desert, just as wild and beautiful, but in a different way. There were cacti, 12 foot high termite mounds, huge boulders, and mountains - oh the mountains... stretching in every direction, towering around us.
Craning my neck out the roof like a puppy I was so content I thought my heart would burst. It was the fulfillment of everything I had sought in coming to Africa - the moving, the adventure of traveling, all in order to help starving orphans. As dusk approached we entered a more dangerous area and stopped at a police station to get an escort. The police of course saw two white women and tried to rip us off, despite the fact that we were trying to go feed their children. In disgust we forged on alone and fortunately met no trouble. That night the boys and I went to a dance club where they played awful music and all the people did this hilarious jerky movement with their bodies. I made a fool of myself trying to dance like them and one of the boys was my personal shover for all the drunk Kenyans who came to slobber on the mzungu.
The next day we wound up into the scorching mountains and just when it seemed like no critter or even lizard would be able to survive in the dry heat a few huts and a crowd of Africans came into view. I don't know what they have been eating, let alone drinking, but as the pastor gathered up the orphans to receive our food I felt a deep remorse that we couldn't feed all the other villagers who grouped around to watch.
That was when the little voice that has been nagging at me for my entire trip piped up again. It taunted me that we were feeding 62 orphans and that they were only a small fraction of the orphans in Kenya, let alone the world. And worse, the voice chided that for all the trouble we went to in order to reach these orphans, they will eat the food and then be starving again in a few days (if their food isn't stolen from first by the other starving villagers).
Just under the surface of my happiness at feeding these orphans was an overwhelming anxiety that what I was doing didn't matter. Later one of Bev's assistants who had grown up near the village spoke to the villagers about the importance of education. He spoke passionately and proved by his very being that education can make a person. It is so important for these people to see the products of their own success stories. So many of the young people who make it to college and get jobs disappear into the world and their villages never hear from the again. When the mzungus show up with a truck of food it fills the villagers' stomachs for a day, but when their friend or child shows up in nice clothes with a healthy smile on his face they are given the motivation that is so lacking. I think the colleges and universities need to require all their graduates to go back to their villages and speak, or even do a service project. Kenyans need to expect help from their own people, not just the whites.
As we drove back through the drought stricken desert, gazing pedestrians held our their hands or pointed at their parched throats and begged "maji" (water). Bev threw a bottle to two little boys who chased after our van screaming for water and that's when I was hit with a small wave of comfort. Perhaps they drank that water and were just as thirsty a few hours later, but maybe, just maybe, that water pushed them through until they found more water. Perhaps Bev saved their lives. And even if that water had no lasting effect, it made them so happy for that moment in time. I am still struggling with the expectations and demands most Kenyans have of white people, and I am still trying to figure out how I can have a real impact here, but for the moment being able to bring food to people so desperately in need made me appreciative and happy.
I am back at Bev's place now, helping out with whatever she needs. Bev and I will travel again in Dec., for which I am obviously excited. In other news, I have a finger nail fungus, which looks every bit as disgusting as it sounds. I just glanced down one day to find that both my thumbnails had turned an alarming shade of yellow and seemed to be detaching from my thumbs. Night told me that in African culture dead fingernails mean you are going to get something new. I told her I was not African so that rule may not apply. Fortunately Bev has some anti-fungal cream so hopefully that will help.
Missing you all terribly!! Keep staying in touch!!!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009